I realize that the ideal emotion for American Horror Story to evoke—at least so far as it’s concerned—is heedless delirium, the characters spiraling ever further through a plot knit together by incident and madness, but somewhere in the middle of the scene in which Danny Huston as the half-resurrected serial killer the Axeman of New Orleans chased a blinded Cordelia around the witch academy with his axe, spouting one-liners that would have been too lame for a villain in a mid-90s Arnold Schwarzenegger thriller, all intercut with all manner of other nonsense, I realized that I don’t give a good goddamn about anything that happens to anybody this season. “But wait!” you might say to me. “This is American Horror Story. You don’t need to care about the characters to have a good time.” And that’s completely true, because I do have a good time with the show this year. I just don’t have any sort of human connection to it, and I suspect that will prove fatal in the end.
What’s more, the first two seasons of the show gave me something real and human to latch onto. I was into the Violet character in season one, and I found just about everybody compelling in season two, even the villains. But this season seems like it’s tried to blend the deeper characters of season two with the wilder plotting of season one, and it just feels like it’s trying too hard to create memorable moments and bits where we gasp and say, “Did that just happen?!” Melissa Maerz in Entertainment Weekly had a good essay in the most recent issue (which doesn't seem to be online yet) about the perils of speeding up the plot too much, pointing to Homeland, New Girl, and Scandal as shows that sped the plotting up as fast as it could go in their second seasons and are now trying to tap on the brakes in season three, only to have their fanbases—critical and otherwise—revolt at the simple fact of storyline preservation. American Horror Story has headed in the opposite direction, piling on the unlikely goofiness and insisting with a big dumb grin that we’re having a good time.
And, again, we are, mostly, so maybe I shouldn’t be complaining that I don’t give two shits about whether anyone lives or dies. Honestly, in the case of the latter, it’s because everybody that’s died has been resurrected at this point (with Madison rejoining the ranks of the living in this episode), and so long as Misty Day is out there—and, remember, she can resurrect herself—death is going to cease to be a viable worry for the characters. Madison’s throat-slitting by Fiona was a legitimately shocking and intriguing moment where I wondered what would be next for all of the characters. Now, however, she’s back, and she doesn’t remember who killed her, because that’s the most convenient thing for storytelling purposes. When even death can’t offer dramatic stakes, what’s left? A poorly explained witch war that seems to get more labyrinthine with every episode without really offering up clear stakes or purpose? Well, then, count me out.
Of course, the show can overcome this with a suitably insane episode, as it did with last week’s, what with Zoe’s chainsaw action and Fiona’s hospital visit and Myrtle being burned at the stake. The danger here, though, is that all of that insanity necessarily disconnects us from the characters, so the ideas have to get crazier and the pace more manic with every week, until we’re essentially watching Ryan Murphy flash single frames of all of his favorite colors past us for a solid hour and oohing and ahhing about the narrative daring. Slow things down a bit for an episode that tries to give us some deeper character understanding—as this one does, I think, or hope, or don’t know—and it becomes easier to realize just how weightless everything is.
Which, I know, is not how to talk about this show, and all of the people who tried to write about it as something other than “here is a list of things that happened” have mostly gotten out of the game and ceded the ground to the “ISN’T THIS CRAZY!?” critics, such as myself. American Horror Story, like all religious experiences, is best observed by simply letting go of the rational and embracing the tumble into what it means to stick “ir” onto that word. And I’ve been going with the show on that level this season, but something about this episode just added one element too many onto the pile, and some part of me revolted. I love the story of the Axeman, and I love the way that his actual letter to the people of New Orleans about how they need to play jazz to be spared his wrath sounds completely like it was penned specifically for this show (though whether sounding almost exactly like a madman serial killer from 1919 is a compliment to the writing staff is a question best left unexplored). But actually having him wandering around the house and then apparently fulfilling Fiona’s desire for one last great romance before she dies just felt like overkill, and not in the good way the show sometimes embraces it. Plus, there was a secret Ouija board in which he was imprisoned and Cordelia tapping around with a cane and somebody on the staff really wishing they had been responsible for Wait Until Dark, and then all of that intersected in a way that just felt more chaotic than genuinely conflict-filled.
And on top of that, there was Hank turning out to have been working for Marie Laveau all this time and Zoe’s growing Supreme powers and Misty keeping Myrtle in a fresh grave of swamp dirt outside her house, while Kyle—remember Kyle?—staggers around and reacts poorly to everything because of what his mother did to him. At its best, American Horror Story feels like fusion cooking or molecular gastronomy, where elements that shouldn’t work together are forced to work together in delirious harmony. At its worst, however, the elements all start to fly apart from each other, and the writers just keep tossing stuff in the stew, hoping against hope that everything will come together in the end. And maybe it will. Maybe once Coven closes up shop, we’ll all be impressed with how the writers brought all of these various planes in for a safe landing. But right now, it feels more like they’re deliberately running those planes into each other and cackling while nobody cleans up the twisted metal.
It’s still early days, of course. We’re not even to the halfway point of the season, though that’s next week. But I keep waiting for the episode that pulls all of this together into one, big, messy marvel, like the Anne Frank episodes did for last season and “Smoldering Children” did for season one, and it just hasn’t come yet. I’m not going to lie. When Marie says, “When I plant a fat ass cracker bitch, I expect her to stay planted. Not come up again like ragweed,” I laugh, because Angela Bassett finds every bit of dark blood dripping from the line. But I also find myself wondering who this character is and why she does what she does, because the show hasn’t yet really explained that beyond the most perfunctory motivations available to it (REVEEEEEEENNNNGGGEEE!). And it’s not as if American Horror Story can’t do this. It certainly did in season two, and it fitfully did in season one. But by trying to mix serious issues—like racism and the subjugation of women—into its gumbo, the show may have ended up biting off more than it can chew, which is why it looks to be sailing off into space.
Grade: C for Cordelia acting like she was auditioning for the Missoula Children’s Theatre production of Three Blind Mice
- Denis O’Hare gets a chance to speak some dialogue this week, as the teen witch squad interrogates him about Madison’s death and just why she ended up in his trunk. As you’d expect, he doesn’t give up the goods, but the look on his face as he embellishes on his lie—see, he’s a necrophiliac!—is masterful. And Queenie sticking the red hot spatula to her own face was great, too.
- I really hope that Myrtle’s role for the rest of the season is to be a hand that sometimes pops up out of the dirt to give a thumb’s up or something.
- Also, Grace Gummer was in this episode as 1919’s version of Zoe (I guess), defending the house from the Axeman with the combined powers of opera, magic, and Ouija. Sadly, there were no rings brought together to summon a giant blue Earth elemental.
- It’s also possible I’m cranky because the scene where Fiona talks to the fellow cancer patients just felt like a weak rehash of last week’s stillborn baby scene, though the bits where she helps Cordelia back into the house were nice.
- This episode was written by Douglas Petrie, whom many of you will know from writing many of the best episodes of Buffy.
- Along with the “death has no meaning!” thing—which feels like the most significant problem with the show’s storyline right now—I’m most skeptical of the way the show keeps reversing the motivations of its characters. Just when you think you understand someone—Surprise! Hank is a monster and a killer!—the show pulls the rug out from under you—he’s working at the behest of Marie. Frankly, it gets a little exhausting and to the point that there’s just no way to reconcile every version of the show with every other version of itself.
- Those of you who doubted Zoe was going to be the Supreme (including the part of my brain hoping it would be Misty somehow) should probably give that up, as this episode more or less places the show firmly on the “Zoe’s the next Supreme” train.